Netflix documentary 'Icarus' spotlights Russian doping whistleblower

A man walks past a doping-control sign at the biathlon and cross-country ski center during the 2014 Winter Olympics. AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "Icarus," a documentary that deepens understanding of how easily the global anti-doping system was gamed, was the opening-night feature of the American Film Institute's AFI DOCS festival in June. Leading man Grigory Rodchenkov was unable to attend. He is currently under the protective custody of the U.S. Department of Justice, which believes there might be a credible threat to his life.

Rodchenkov is the brilliant, irreverent Russian scientist who first helped facilitate organized doping in his country, then called foul on it. Evidence he carried with him when he fled to the United States in late 2015 exposed the comingled interests of his country's political leaders and its sports establishment -- a symbiotic relationship that went underground rather than ending with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Whether or not audiences find Rodchenkov sympathetic, they might well find him fascinating. Netflix, which paid $5 million to acquire the film (to be released Friday by the streaming service), is banking on that.

The former Moscow laboratory director has figured prominently in voluminous World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned investigative reports over the past two years. In a May 2016 story in The New York Times, Rodchenkov described sample tampering, government and secret police involvement and drug-masking methods used to rig the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. Russian officials have denounced him and dismissed his claims.

"Icarus" provides the first three-dimensional glimpse of the person behind the revelations.

He enters the documentary as an earthy, savvy rogue who gleefully assists filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel in a performance-enhancing experiment. Rodchenkov is expert at playing both sides. His research formed the basis of more sensitive detection methods for some steroids even as he invented ways to mask others.

Early in the movie, Rodchenkov promises to help Fogel beat drug tests, following an eyebrow-raising cameo by U.S. research pioneer Don Catlin, who initially considered and then backed out of the same proposition. But by the end of "Icarus," Rodchenkov is a haunted man, convinced that the former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency was silenced by murder and fearing he might be next. His evolution is the film's narrative core.

The film's backers readily admit they have an agenda: driving home the flaws in the current anti-doping infrastructure and pushing the Olympic sports world to hold Russia accountable for flouting and undermining those efforts. Outside the ongoing suspension of the Russian track and field federation, it remains to be seen whether there will be tangible consequences for cheating that touched more than two dozen summer, winter and Paralympic sports, according to evidence gathered by law professor and independent investigator Richard McLaren.

"We want to make sure [the film] has the biggest impact possible on the culture of international sport," said Ed Stier, a former state and federal prosecutor who is the filmmakers' legal counsel. "If they find a way to walk away from [the evidence], it's going to be disastrous.

"[Rodchenkov] began to realize there was a world outside where the things they were doing were repugnant and offensive. He made up his mind he would use his knowledge to reform the system. His life was shattered. I hope what happened to Grigory comes through in the film."

As an outgrowth of their experience with Rodchenkov, Stier and others -- including "Icarus" co-producer and venture capitalist Jim Swartz and Olympic speed skating champion and philanthropist Johann Koss -- established FairSport, a nonprofit foundation for whistleblower support and athletes' rights.

FairSport has signed memorandums of understanding with WADA and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and will provide financial and legal help to select whistleblowers. Swartz, director emeritus of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Foundation, said FairSport is intended to be "a trusted neutral in the whole process."

"It became very clear to me that athletes have no platform to help each other and help themselves," he said.

There might come a time when someone will make a doping movie without reference to Lance Armstrong, but that time is not soon. Familiar footage of the dethroned seven-time Tour de France champion appears at the beginning and end of "Icarus." He was Fogel's original muse, having gotten away with so much for so long. The original cut of the movie screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year had more of Fogel's cycling odyssey and less of Rodchenkov's more perilous journey. Edits have made it more accessible to a wider swath of people.

"You often hear people being fatalistic about doping: 'Let them all dope.' They see this and you don't hear that anymore."

Jim Swartz, 'Icarus' co-producer, on reaction to the film

Russia duped the world before and during Sochi 2014 with help from an enabling, co-dependent, international sports establishment that was either in denial or in cahoots. Were it not for whistleblowers such as Rodchenkov, and Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov before him, that fraud would have gone uncovered.

All three of them risked their lives and left family members behind. The Stepanovs' information about corruption in Russian track and field only surfaced because of investigative work by German television reporter Hajo Seppelt.

Rodchenkov found a haven in the United States thanks to his oddly formed friendship with Fogel. He was already in hiding when Fogel leveraged his information in exchange for permission to film a debriefing session shown in the film, laying out the implications to a clearly nauseated group that includes current WADA director general Olivier Niggli, WADA athlete committee chairwoman Beckie Scott and WADA-accredited Montreal laboratory director Christiane Ayotte.

In a pernicious twist, Rodchenkov says in the film that his special access to the London 2012 laboratory -- a courtesy granted because of his upcoming role in directing the Sochi lab -- was critical to his ability to help Russian athletes beat tests in London and Sochi.

"Icarus" underscores the powerful internal and external forces aligned against effective anti-doping efforts. Swartz, who once served on the board of trustees for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, was so disgusted with what he learned last year that he canceled his plans to attend Rio 2016. But he said he wants the film to provoke determination to fight coercion and corruption rather than defeatism.

"I've shown the film 25 times now, to hundreds of people since January," Swartz said in June. "I showed it to a bunch of ski-team folks, and at the end, they had tears in their eyes. You often hear people being fatalistic about doping: 'Let them all dope.' They see this and you don't hear that anymore."